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A PATIENT GRISEL
Matters seemed to be getting worse all round us both in France and England. King Charles was in the hands of his enemies, and all the good news that we could hear from England was that the Duke of York had escaped in a girl's dress, and was on board the fleet at helvoetsluys, where his brother the Prince of Wales jointed him.
And my own dear brother, Lord Walwyn, declared that he could no longer remain inactive at Paris, so far from intelligence, but that he must be with the Princes, ready to assist in case anything should be attempted on the King's behalf. We much dreaded the effect of the Dutch climate on his health. And while tumultuous assemblies were constantly taking place in Parliament, and no one could guess what was coming next, we did not like parting with our protector; but he said that he was an alien, and could do nothing for us. The army was on its way home, and with it our brother de Solivet, and M. d'Aubepine; and his clear duty was to be ready to engage in the cause of his own King. We were in no danger at Paris, our sex was sufficient protection, and if we were really alarmed, there could be no reason against our fleeing to Nid de Merle. Nay, perhaps, if the Court were made to take home the lesson, we might be allowed to reside there, and be unmolested in making improvements. He had another motive, which he only whispered to me.
'I cannot, and will not, give up my friend Darpent; and it is not fitting to live in continual resistance to my mother. It does much harm to Annora, who is by no means inclined to submit, and if I am gone there can be no further question of intercourse.'
I thought this was hard upon us all. Had we not met M. Darpent at the Hotel Rambouillet, and was he not a fit companion for us?
'Most assuredly,' said Eustace; 'but certain sentiments may arise from companionship which in her case were better avoided.'
As you may imagine, my grandchildren, I cried out in horror at the idea that if M. Darpent were capable of such presumption, my sister, a descendant of the Ribaumonts, could stoop for a moment to favour a mere bourgeois; but Eustace, Englishman as he was, laughed at my indignation, and said Annora was more of the Ribmont than the de Ribaumont, and that he would not be accessory either to the breaking of hearts or to letting her become rebellious, and so that he should put temptation out of her way. I knew far too well what was becoming to allow myself to suppose for a moment that Eustace thought an inclination between the two already could exist. I forgot how things had been broken up in England.
As to Annora, she thought Eustace's right place was with the Prince, and she would not stretch out a finger to hold him back, only she longed earnestly that he would take us with him. Could he not persuade our mother that France was becoming dangerous, and that she would be safe in Holland? But of course he only laughed at that; and we all saw that unless the Queen of England chose to follow her sons, there was no chance of my mother leaving the Court.
'No, my sister,' said Eustace tenderly, 'there is nothing for you to do but to endure patiently. It is very hard for you to be both firm and resolute, and at the same time dutiful; but it is a noble part in its very difficulty, and my Nan will seek strength for it.'
Then the girl pressed up to him, and told him that one thing he must promise her, namely, that he would prevent my mother from disposing of her hand without his consent.
'As long as you are here I am safe,' said she; 'but when you are gone I do not know what she may attempt. And here is this Solivet son of hers coming too!'
'Solivet has no power over you,' said Eustace. 'You may make yourself easy, Nan. Nobody can marry you without my consent, for my father made me your guardian. And I doubt me if your portion, so long as I am living, be such as to tempt any man to wed such a little fury, even were we at home.'
'Thanks for the hint, brother,' said Annora. 'I will take care that any such suitor SHALL think me a fury.'
'Nay, child, in moderation! Violence is not strength. Nay, rather it exhausts the forces. Resolution and submission are our watchwords.'
How noble he looked as he said it, and how sad it was to part with him! my mother wept most bitterly, and said it was cruel to leave us to our fate, and that he would kill himself in the Dutch marshes; but when the actual pain of parting with him was over, I am not sure that she had not more hope of carrying out her wishes. She would have begun by forbidding Annora to go, attended only by the servants, to prayers at the England ambassador's: but Eustace had foreseen this, and made arrangements with a good old knight and his lady, Sir Francis Ommaney, always to call for my sister on their way to church, and she was always ready for them. My mother used to say that her devotion was all perverseness, and now and then, when more than usually provoked with her, would declare that it was quite plain that her poor child's religion was only a heresy, since it did not make her a better daughter.
That used to sting Annora beyond all measure. Sometimes she would reply by pouring out a catalogue of all the worst offences of our own Church, and Heaven knows she could find enough of them! Or at others she would appeal to the lives of all the best people she had ever heard of in England, and especially of Eustace, declaring that she knew she herself was far from good, but that was not the fault of her religion, but of herself; and she would really strive to be submissive and obliging for many days afterwards.
Meantime the Prince of Conde had returned, and had met the Court at Ruel. M. d'Aubepine and M. de Solivet both were coming with him, and my poor little Cecile wrote letter after letter to her husband, quite correct in grammar and orthography, asking whether she should have the Hotel d'Aubepine prepared, and hire servants to receive him; but she never received a line in reply. She was very anxious to know whether the concierge had received any orders, and yet she could not bear to betray her ignorance.
I had been startled by passing in the street a face which I was almost sure belonged to poor Cecile's former enemy, Mademoiselle Gringrimeau, now the wife of Croquelebois, the intendant of the estate; and setting old Nicole to work, I ascertained that this same agent and his wife were actually at the Hotel d'Aubepine, having come to meet their master, but that no apartments were made ready for him, as it was understood that being on the staff he would be lodge in the Hotel de Conde.
'His duty!' said Cecile; 'he must fulfil his duty, but at least I shall see him.'
But to hear of the intendant and his wife made me very uneasy.
The happier wives were going out in their carriages to meet their husbands on the road, but Cecile did not even know when he was coming, nor by what road.
'So much the better,' said our English Nan. 'If I had a husband, I would never make him look foolish in the middle of the road with a woman and a pack of children hanging on him!'
No one save myself understood her English bashfulness, shrinking from all display of sentiment, and I--ah! I had known such blissful meetings, when my Philippe had been full of joy to see me come out to meet him. Ah! will he meet me thus at the gates of Paradise? It cannot be far off now!
I knew I should weep all the way if I set out with my mother to meet her son; and Cecile was afraid both of the disappointment if she did not meet her husband, and of his being displeased if he should come. So she only took with her Annora and M. de Solivet's two daughters, Gabrielle and Petronille, who were fetched from the Convent of the Visitation. There they sat in the carriage, Nan told me, exactly alike in their pensionnaire's uniform, still and shy on the edge of the seat, not daring to look to the right or left, and answering under their breath, so that she longed to shake them. I found afterwards that the heretic Mademoiselle de Ribaumont was a fearful spectacle to them, and that they were expecting her all the time to break out in the praises of Luther, or of Henry VIII., or of some one whom they had been taught to execrate; and whenever she opened her lips they thought she was going to pervert them, and were quite surprised when she only made a remark, like other people, on the carriages and horsemen who passed them.
Meanwhile Cecile saw her little girl and boy dressed in their best, and again rehearsed the curtsey and the bow and the little speeches with which they were to meet their father. She was sure, she said, that whatever he might think of her, he must be enchanted with them; and truly they had beautiful eyes, and Armantine was a charming child, though Maurice was small and pale, and neither equaled my Gaspard, who might have been White Ribaumont for height and complexion, resembling much his uncle Walwyn, and yet in countenance like his father. Then Cecile and I, long before it was reasonable, took our station near a window overlooking the porte-cochere. I sat with my work, while the children watched on the window-seat, and she, at every exclamation of theirs, leaped up to look out, but only to see some woodcutter with his pile of faggots, or a washer-woman carrying home a dress displayed on its pole, or an ell of bread coming in from the baker's; and she resumed her interrupted conversation on her security that for the children's sake her husband would set up his household together with her at the Hotel d'Aubepine. She had been learning all she could, while she was with us, and if she could only be such that he need not be ashamed of her, and would love her only a little for his children's sake, how happy she should be!
I encouraged her, for her little dull provincial convent air was quite gone; she had acquired the air of society, my mother had taught her something of the art of dress, and though nothing would ever make her beautiful in feature, or striking in figure, she had such a sweet, pleading, lovely expression of countenance that I could not think how any one could resist her. At last it was no longer a false alarm. The children cried out, not in vain. The six horses were clattering under the gateway, the carriage came in sight before the steps. Cecile dropped back in her chair as pale as death, murmuring: 'Tell me if he is there!'
Alas! 'he' was not there. I only saw M. de Solivet descend from the carriage and hand out my mother, my sister, and his two daughters. I could but embrace my poor sister-in-law, and assure her that I would bring her tidings of her husband, and then hurry away with Gaspard that I might meet my half-brother at the salon door. There he was, looking very happy, with a daughter in each hand, and they had lighted up into something like animation, which made Petronille especially show that she might some day be pretty. He embraced me, like the good-natured friendly brother he had always been, and expressed himself perfectly amazed at the growth and beauty of my little Marquis, as well he might be, for my mother and I both agreed that there was not such another child among all the King's pages.
I asked, as soon as I could, for M. d'Aubepine, and heard that he was attending the Prince, who would, of course, first have to dress, and then to present himself to the Queen-Regent, and kiss her hand, after which he would go to Madame de Longueville's reception of the King. It was almost a relief to hear that the Count was thus employed, and I sent my son to tell his aunt that she might be no longer in suspense.
I asked Solivet whether we might expect the young man on leaving the Louvre, and he only shrugged his shoulders and said: 'What know I?' It became plain to me that he would not discuss the matter before his daughters, now fourteen and fifteen, and we all had to sit down to an early supper, after which they were to be taken back to their convent. M. d'Aubepine appeared, and was quite cheerful, for she figured to herself once more that her husband was only detained by his duties and his value to his Prince, and was burning every moment to see his little ones. She asked questions about him, and became radiant when she heard of his courage at Lens, and the compliments that M. le Prince had paid to him.
After supper the little pensionnaires were to be taken back, and as some lady must escort them, I undertook the charge, finding with great delight that their father would accompany them likewise. I effaced myself as much as I could on the way, and let the father and daughters talk to one another; and they chattered freely about their tasks, and works, and playfellows, seeming very happy with him.
But on the way home was my opportunity, and I asked what my half- brother really thought of M. d'Aubepine.
'He is a fine young man,' he said.
'You have told me that before; but what hopes are there for his wife?'
'Poor little thing,' returned Solivet.
'Can he help loving her?' I said
'Alas! my sister, he has been in a bad school, and has before him an example--of courage, it is true, but not precisely of conjugal affection.'
'Is it true, then,' I asked, 'that the Princess of Conde is kept utterly in the background in spite of her mother-in-law, and that the Prince publishes his dislike to her?'
'Perfectly true,' said my brother. 'When a hero, adored by his officers, actually declares that the only thing he does not wish to see in France is his wife, what can you expect of them? Even some who really love their wives bade them remain at home, and will steal away to see them with a certain shame; and for Aubepine, he is only too proud to resemble the Prince in being married against his will to a little half-deformed child, who is to be avoided.'
I cried out at this, and demanded whether my little sister-in-law could possibly be thus described. He owned that she was incredibly improved, and begged my pardon and hers, saying that he was only repeating what Aubepine either believed or pretended to believe her to be.
'If I could only speak with him!' I said. 'For my husband's sake I used to have some influence with him. I would give the world to meet him before he sees the intendant and his wife. Could we contrive it?'
In a few moments we had settled it. Happily we were both in full dress, in case friends should have dropped in on us. Both of us had the entree at Madame de Longueville's, and it would be quite correct to pay her our compliments on the return of her brother.
I believe Solivet a little questioned whether one so headstrong had not better be left to himself, but he allowed that no one had ever done as much with Armand d'Aubepine as my husband and myself, and when he heard my urgent wish to forestall the intendant, whose wife was Cecile's old tyrant, Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau, he thought it worth the venture. He said I was a warlike Gildippe still, and that he would stand by me.
So the coachman received his orders; we fell in among the long line of carriages, and in due time made our way to the salon, where Madame le Duchesse de Longueville sat enthroned in all the glory of her fair hair and beautiful complexion, toying with her fan as she conversed with the Prince of Marsillac, the most favoured at that time of a whole troop of admirers and devoted slaves. She was not an intellectual woman herself, but she had beyond all others who I ever saw the power of leading captive the very ablest men.
The hero had not yet come from the palace, and having made our compliments, and received a gracious smile and nod, we stood aside, waiting and conversing with others, and in some anxiety lest the Prince should be detained at the Louvre. However, before long he came, and his keen eagle face, and the stars on his breast, flashed on us, as he returned the greetings of one group after another in his own peculiar manner, haughty, and yet not without a certain charm.
A troop of officers followed, mingling with the gay crowd of ladies and gentlemen, and among them Solivet pointed out the Count d'Aubepine. I should not otherwise have known him, so much was he altered in these six years, changing him from youth to manhood. His hair was much darker, he had a small pointed beard, and the childish contour of cheek and chin had passed away, and he was altogether developed, but there was something that did not reassure me. He seemed to have lost, with his boyhood, that individuality which we had once loved, and to have passed into an ordinary officer, like all the rest of the gay, dashing, handsome, but often hardened-looking men, who were enjoying their triumphant return into ladies' society.
Solivet had accosted him. I saw his eye glance anxiously round, then he seemed reassured, and came towards me with some eagerness, greeting me with some compliment, I know not what, on my appearance; but I cut this as short as I could be saying: 'Know you, Monsieur, why I am here? I am come to ask you to bestow a little half-hour on one who is longing to see you.'
'Madame, I am desolated to refuse you, but, you see, I am in attendance, and on duty; I am not the master!'
However, my brother observed that he would not be required for at least two hours, and his movements would be quite free until the party broke up. And after a little importunity, I actually carried him off, holding up his hands and declaring that he could not withstand Madame de Bellaise, so as to cast over his concession an air of gallantry without which I believe his vanity would never have yielded.
However, I had my hopes; I would not blame him when I had such an advantage over him as having him shut up with me in my coach, for we left Solivet to make his excuses, and as we told him, for a hostage, to come back when I released my prisoner. I trusted more to the effect of the sight of my sweet little Cecile than to any exhortation in my power; indeed, I thought I had better keep him in good humour by listening amiably to his explanation of the great favour that he was doing me in coming to see Madame, my mother, and how indispensable he was to M. le Prince.
He must have known what I was carrying him to see, but he did not choose to show that he did, and when he gave me his arm and I took him into the pansy salon, there sat my mother with my sister, two or three old friends who had come to congratulate her, and to see M. de Solivet, and Cecile, who had not been able to persuade herself to send her children to bed, though she knew not of my audacious enterprises.
I saw that he did not know her in the least, as he advanced to my mother, as the lady of the house, and in one moment I recollected how my grandfather had fallen in love with my grandmother without knowing she was his life. Cecile, crimson all over, with her children beside her, sprang forward, her heart telling her who he was. 'Ah, Monsieur, embrace your son,' she murmured. And little Armantine and Maurice, as they had been tutored, made their pretty reverences, and said, 'Welcome, my papa.'
He really was quite touched. There was something, too, in the surroundings which was sympathetic. He embraced them all, and evidently looked at his wife with amazement, sitting down at last beside her with his little boy upon his knee.
We drew to the farther end of the room that they might be unembarrassed. Annora was indignant that we did not leave them alone, but I thought he wanted a certain check upon him, and that it was good for him to be in the presence of persons who expected him to be delighted to see his wife and children.
I believe that that quarter of an hour was actual pain to Cecile from the very overflowing rush of felicity. To have her husband seated beside her, with his son upon his knee, had been the dream and prayer of her life for six years, and now that it was gratified the very intensity of her hopes and fears choked her, made her stammer and answer at random, when a woman without her depth of affection might have put out all kinds of arts to win and detain him.
After a time he put the child down, but still held his hand, came up to the rest of the company and mingled with it. I could have wished they had been younger and more fashionable, instead of a poor old Scottish cavalier and his wife, my mother's old contemporary Madame de Delincourt, and a couple of officers waiting for Solivet. Annora was the only young brilliant creature there, and she had much too low an opinion of M. d'Aubepine to have a word to say to him, and continued to converse in English with old Sir Andrew Macniven about the campaigns of the Marquis of Montrose, both of them hurling out barbarous names that were enough to drive civilized ears out of the room.
Our unwilling guest behaved with tolerably good grace, and presently made his excuse to my mother and me, promising immediately to send back Solivet to his friends. His wife went with him into the outer room, and when in a few minutes Armantine ran back to call me---
'Papa is gone, and mama is crying,' she said.
It was true, but they were tears of joy. Cecile threw herself on my bosom perfectly overwhelmed with happiness, poor little thing, declaring that she owed it all to me, and that though he could not remain now, he had promised that she should hear from him. He was enchanted with his children; indeed, how could he help it? And she would have kept me up all night, discussing every hair of his moustache, every tone in the few words he had spoken to her. When at last I parted from her I could not help being very glad. Was the victory indeed won, and would my Philippe's sister become a happy wife?
I trusted that now he had seen her he would be armed against Madame Croquelebois, who you will remember had been his grandmother's dame de compagnie, and a sort of governess to him. She had petted him as much as she had afterwards tyrannized over his poor little wife, and might still retain much influence over him, which she was sure to exert against me. But at any rate he could not doubt of his wife's adoration for him.
We waited in hope. We heard of the Prince in attendance on the Queen-Regent, and we knew his aide-de-camp could not be spared, and we went on expecting all the morning and all the evening, assuring Cecile that military duty was inexorable, all the time that we were boiling over with indignation.
My mother was quite as angry as we were, and from her age and position could be more effective. She met M. d'Aubepine one evening at the Louvre, and took him to task, demanding when his wife was to hear from him, and fairly putting him out of countenance in the presence of the Queen of England. She came home triumphant at what she had done, and raised our hopes again, but in fact, though it impelled him to action, there was now mortified vanity added to indifference and impatience of the yoke.
There was a letter the next day. Half an hour after receiving it I found Cecile sunk down on the floor of her apartment, upon which all her wardrobe was strewn about as if to be packed up. She fell into my arms weeping passionately, and declaring she must leave us. to leave us and set up her menage with her husband had always been her ambition, so it was plain that this was not what she meant; but for a long time she neither would nor could tell me, or moan out anything but a 'convent,' 'how could he?' and 'my children.'
At last she let me read the letter, and a cruel one it was, beginning 'Madame,' and giving her the choice of returning to Chateau d'Aubepine under the supervision of Madame Croquelebois, or of entering a convent, and sending her son to be bred up at the Chateau under a tutor and the intendant. She had quite long enough lived with Madame de Bellaise, and that young Englishman, her brother, who was said to be charming.
It was an absolute insult to us all, and as I saw at once was the work of Madame Croquelebois, accepted by the young Count as a convenient excuse for avoiding the ennui and expense of setting up a household with his wife, instead of living a gay bachelor life with his Prince. I did not even think it was his handwriting except the signature, an idea which gave the first ray of comfort to my poor sister-in-law. It was quite provoking to find that she had no spirit to resent, or even to blame; she only wept that any one should be so cruel, and, quite hopeless of being heard on her own defence, was ready to obey, and return under the power of her oppressor, if only she might keep her son. All the four years she had lived with us had not taught her self-assertion, and the more cruelly she was wounded, the meeker she became.
The Abbe said she was earning a blessing; but I felt, like Annora, much inclined to beat her, when she would persist in loving and admiring that miserable fellow through all, and calling him 'so noble.'
We did not take things by any means so quietly. We were the less sorry for my brother's absence that such an insinuation almost demanded a challenge, though in truth I doubt whether they would have dared to make it had he been at hand. Annora did wish she could take sword or pistols in hand and make him choke on his own words, and she was very angry that our brother de Solivet was much too cool and prudent to take Eustace's quarrel on himself.
Here, however, it was my mother who was most reasonable, and knew best how to act. She said that it was true that as this was my house, and the charge of M. d'Aubepine had been committed to me, I had every right to be offended; but as she was the eldest lady in the house it was suitable for her to act. She wrote a billet to him demanding a personal interview with him that he might explain the insinuations which concerned the honour of herself, her son, and her daughter.
I believe a duel would have been much more agreeable to him than such a meeting, but my mother so contrived it that he knew that he could not fail to meet her without its being known to the whole Court, and that he could not venture. So he came, and I never saw anything more admirably managed than the conference was on my mother's part, for she chose to have me present as mistress of the house. She had put on her richest black velvet suit, and looked a most imposing chatelaine, and though he came in trying to carry it off with military bravado and nonchalance, he was evidently ill at ease.
My mother then demanded of him, in her own name, her son's, and mine, what right or cause he had to make such accusations, as he had implied, respecting our house.
He laughed uneasily, and tried to make light of it, talking of reports, and inferences, and so on; but my mother, well assured that there was no such scandal, drove him up into a corner, and made him confess that he had heard nothing but from Madame Croquelebois. My mother then insisted on that lady being called for, sending her own sedan chair to bring her.
Now the Baronne de Ribaumont Walwyn was a veritable grande dame, and Madame Croquelebois, in spite of her sharp nose, and sharper tongue, was quite cowed by her, and absolutely driven to confess that she had not heard a word against Madame la Comtesse. All that she had gone upon was the fact of their residence in the same house, and that a servant of hers had heard from a servant of ours that M. le Baron gave her his hand to go in to dinner every day when there were no visitors.
It all became plain then. The intendant's wife, who had never forgiven me for taking her victim away from her, had suggested this hint as an excuse for withdrawing the Countess from me, without obliging the Count to keep house with her, and becoming the attentive husband, who seemed, to his perverted notions, a despicable being. Perhaps neither of them had expected the matter to be taken up so seriously, and an old country-bred Huguenot as Madame Croquelebois had originally been, thought that as we were at Court, gallantry was our natural atmosphere.
Having brought them to confession, we divided them. My mother talked to the intendante, and made her perceive what a wicked, cruel injustice and demoralization she was leading her beloved young Count into committing, injuring herself and his children, till the woman actually wept, and allowed that she had not thought of it; she wanted to gratify him, and she felt it hard and ungrateful that she should not watch over his wife and children as his grandmother had always intended.
On my side I had M. d'Aubepine, and at last I worked down to the Armand I had known at Nancy, not indeed the best of subjects, but still infinitely better than the conceited, reckless man who had appeared at first. The one thing that touched him was that I should think him disrespectful to me, and false to his friendship for my husband. He really had never thought his words would hurt me for a moment. He actually shed tears at the thought of my Philippe, and declared that nothing was farther from his intention than any imputation on any one belonging to me.
But bah! he was absolutely driven to find some excuse! How could he play the devoted husband to a little ugly imbecile like that, who would make him ridiculous every moment they appeared together? Yes, he knew I had done the best I could for her, but what was she after all? And her affection was worst of all. Everybody would made game of him.
There was no getting farther. The example of the Prince of Conde and the fear of ridicule had absolutely steeled his heart and blinded his eyes. He could not and would not endure the innocent wife who adored him.
Finally my mother, calling in Solivet, came to the following arrangement, since it was plain that we must part with our inmates. Cecile and her children were to be installed in the Hotel d'Aubepine, to which her husband did not object, since he would be either in attendance on the Prince, or with his regiment. This was better than sending her either to a convent or to the country, since she would still be within our reach, although to our great vexation we could not prevail so far as to hinder Madame Croquelebois from being installed as her duenna, the intendant himself returning to La Vendee.
To our surprise, Cecile did not seem so much dismayed at returning under the power of her tyrant as we had expected. It was doing what her husband wished, and living where she would have news of him, and perhaps sometimes see him.
That was all she seemed to think about, except that she would have her children still with her, and not be quite cut off from us.
And I took this consolation, that she was in better health and a woman of twenty-two could not be so easily oppressed as a sickly child of sixteen.
But we were very unhappy about it, and Annora almost frantic, above all at Cecile's meek submission. She was sure the poor thing would be dead in a month, and then we should be sorry.
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